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Review of "Rethinking Rape"

By Ann J. Cahill
Cornell University Press, 2001
Review by Isabel Gois on Apr 17th 2002
Rethinking Rape

Ann Cahill has written an important and well-balanced book on a subject that is known to fuel passions and not much clear thinking. The book merits the more praise for such qualities since it is written from a feminist perspective, which some may consider off-putting. The militant and extremist tones that feminist writing has often adopted regarding rape, albeit comprehensible, certainly haven’t always contributed to a better understanding of its harms and wrongs. Ann Cahill’s Rethinking Rape stands out for its unruffled approach, as well as it careful argumentation.

The book starts off with a critical examination of the two most influential schools of feminist thought on rape (one exemplified by Brownmiller and the other by Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin), and considers both their strengths and weaknesses. Put briefly, Cahill’s rejection of these approaches rests on their failure “to account sufficiently for the intricate interplay of social and political power, sexual hierarchization [sic], and embodiment.” (p. 3) Brownmiller’s excessive focus on the violence attending rape ignores the specific sexual character of the attack, and MacKinnon’s claim that heterosexuality is in all instances for the benefit of men renders impossible the exercise of feminine sexual agency or even resistance. As Cahill sees it, previous feminist approaches are no doubt to be applauded for their pioneering and legitimate questioning of the ‘victim’s share of culpability’ in the crime of rape. Yet, if we are to understand rape both in its all-encompassing harms and ethical wrongs, we need to rethink rape as a “pervasive, sustained, and repetitive, but not ultimately defining, element of the development of women’s experience.” (pp. 4-5). This is precisely what the rest of the book attempts to do. Chapters 2 and 3 develop Cahill’s main themes in the book: feminine subjectivity, agency and the significance of embodiment. In particular, the author is concerned to analyse the implications of the historical construction of the female body as inherently inferior and lacking the typical characteristics that define human beings (i.e., rationality). On the overall plan of the book, these chapters build up to Cahill’s main thesis (expounded in Chapter 4): that rape needs to be theorized “fundamentally as an embodied experience, as an affront to an embodied subject.” (p.13) Only thus looked at can we fully understand rape for what it is and what is ethically blameworthy in it: “a sexually specific act that destroys (if only temporarily) the intersubjective, embodied agency and therefore personhood of a woman.” (p.13) As Cahill rightly points out, it is not incidental to the specific nature and wrongness of rape that it is a sexual attack. To see this, one only has to be reminded (and this book shows that there is need to be reminded) how central our sexual lives are in the details of our personal and social identities, and consequently how it is precisely the specific sexual nature of the attack that so violently shatters (even if only temporarily) a woman’s physical and psychological integrity. In Chapter 5, Cahill takes further her reflections on the sexual nature of the crime of rape, this time to focus on the role that rape plays in the construction of feminine subjectivity. Most importantly, Cahill calls attention to the fact that the threat of rape – as persistent and pervasive as it is in women’s lives – not only limits the space and time women can ‘safely’ move in (a constraint from which men are exempt), it marks from the very beginning their experience as women. Put more clearly, because women are seen, and see themselves as rapable, the threat of rape will inevitably influence the behaviour and mannerisms usually associated with being a woman. In Chapter 6, Cahill takes direct issue with what is ethically blameworthy about the crime of rape. As mentioned before, her position is that since the integrity and identity of a person are necessarily connected to the facts of embodiment, to “violate the sexed body of a woman…is to attack the integrity of her person” (p. 14) The book closes with some reflections on the possibility of resisting the threat of rape not only by legal reform but also by women’s self-defence training, a proposal that attempts to contradict the idea of women as weak and, thus, ‘easy’ to subdue.

All in all, I would vividly recommend this book to a wide audience. It is full of insightful reflections, and certainly talks to women’s experience of the fear and facts of sexual violence. From the point of view of philosophical analysis and rigorous articulation of its claims, this is one of the best books to come out in the last few years on rape. From my point of view, its only weakness lies in the assumption that rape is made possible and perpetuated by a patriarchal order. For all the truth that this assumption may carry (and I have little doubt that there is some truth in it), the phenomenon of rape seems to me more complex than that. However, the reader will certainly judge for himself as this is a book to make one think.


© 2002 Isabel Gois


Isabel Gois is a PhD student at King’s College London working on Consciousness. Her research interests include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology, and Mental Disorder. She has articles published on Emotions, Computationalism, and Consciousness.